SEEK Interviews: Q. Sakamaki

This is the second in an occasional series of interviews with SEEK instructors, our colleagues and friends, curators, photographers of all different kinds, our influences, and people who we think you might find interesting. Today we bring you SEEK instructor Q. Sakamaki, a New York City-based two-time winner of the Overseas Press Club Award who has published five books of his work. Q blends coverage of global events with his personal interpretation of how these events affect people's lives and psyches. We are planning a workshop in Mexico City this year which will feature Q teaching with his friend and colleague Spencer Platt. Follow Q's work on Instagram @qsakamaki - and read more about him on his bio page here: http://www.seekworkshops.com/q-sakamaki/ For now, please enjoy this email interview and two galleries of Q's work. The first is from his project, "China's Outer Lands":

 

SEEK: What is the most important thing when it comes to taking photos? 

QS: To catch emotion related to human dramas, or even to reveal what may be behind those dramas. Through photography, I would like to explore humanity — who we are and what is important or critical for us. Then, I would like to share the work as much as I can. 

SEEK: Can you tell us a little about your friendship with Spencer and how your teaching together will be an interesting experience for students? 

QS: We have known each other more than decade. Both of us cover international affairs, as well as domestic issues in the United States. We often encounter each other in hot spots, including conflict zones, such as Israel, Palestine, Sudan, and Greece (during the recent refugee crisis). We share information and exchange our own views in such places or in New York where both of us live. We share much common ground about humanity, journalism, and photography. However, our style is quite different, since he works for Getty Images as a wire type of a dynamic photographer, on the other hand, I work more likely aiming for magazines, especially for feature stories, often with fine-art like aesthetic images. So, teaching together with Spence will be very interesting for students, since they'll learn different perspectives to swim well in the very demanding seas of photo-documentary and photo-journalism. 

SEEK: You mentioned in your bio that you are combining elements of fine art with documentary photography with aspects of your identity. Can you elaborate on this idea? How does your identity come into play with your photography?

QS: First, any personal expression could be art. Photo-documentary should be so, though in the arena of non-fiction. Due to this nature, I would like to combine my documentary photography with fine art to make my photography grow more.

Second, for me, it is not enough to photograph the moment as it is. Although, again, there is no fabrication and no bias in photo-journalism and photo-documentary, it is also equally, or ever more important to seek something behind the scenes captured in front of us — like something universal, for example, injustice or the human soul. Those have evolved in humanity throughout history, and are nearly always related to identity and belonging of people. However, unlike the general notion, identity and belonging are often changing — at least these are not perfectly definable. This has affected me as well - I moved from place to place many times in my childhood (often facing discrimination), and now I have lived in the United States much longer than I ever lived in Japan. Thus, to explore human dramas, combining with my own identity and belonging is very natural. And through such a process, I would like to figure out what humans are, and where we came from, and where we are heading.

SEEK: And you also mentioned that it could be possible to explore one's own future through photography. Will you tell us more about this idea?

QS: As I mentioned above, photography can be a process of seeking for universal values, since to take photos is to explore human dramas, even the motivations behind them. It also could become a means to figure out what humans are, as any human drama is related to the past, present, and future. So, photography can be a significant process to explore both where we humans came from and where we are heading.

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SEEK: In your recent project, "Tojinbo: Suicide Cliffs," you've taken on a challenging and sensitive topic. A few of the photos seem to have metaphorical elements. This appears to be an effective way to evoke a deeper meaning within an individual picture and to affect the overall body of work. How do you create a metaphor with a photo?

QS: Yes, that is right. I like metaphors in my photography and it could be very effective for not only an individual photo, but also for a whole work, since the world is not so simple, each subject has very complicated matters and elements around it, even though those are related to each other. So, for the creation of an individual photo, I nearly always look for elements that can be not only related to the theme of the story, but can also give deeper meanings and often evoke something haunted behind the story or scene.

SEEK: Many thanks to Q for sharing his thoughts and his photographs. Please visit www.qsakamaki.com for extended edits and many more bodies of work. We conclude this interview with a selection of photos from Q's coverage of the 2011 tsunami in Fukushima, Japan, both shortly after the event and his return one year later to photograph stories of survival.

The Found Artist

By Andrés Carnalla

As a photographer, walking around is a way to find stories. A few years ago, I was wandering my neighborhood, El Cardo, in San Miguel de Allende. I heard hammering inside the courtyard of a nearby house. As I got closer, a man called out to me to come in. His voice sounded as if he had been waiting a long time for someone to visit.

His name was Miguel Angel Luna. As we started talking, we discovered we had much in common. He was self-taught, and humbly told me about his art. He uses metal, wire, and natural pigments to create elaborate symbolic objects. We spent hours talking about his ideas and methods, and I was lucky that he had just started working on his piece "Tonantzin."

Tonantzin, “Our Sacred Mother,” in the indigenous language Nahuatl, symbolizes a connection to fertility and the earth. Many people consider her to be the same as the Virgin of Guadalupe, who the Catholic church views as a manifestation of the Virgin Mary, and has become as important a symbol of Mexico as the eagle on the flag. Together, Tonantzin and the Virgin of Guadalupe represent the emergence of Mexico as a nation born out of the conflicts between European and pre-Hispanic civilizations.

The next day I came back early in the morning to observe Miguel Angel's process. Each careful movement he made caused me to pause and admire how his passion for his work came to life through his hands. From the intricacy of his weaving, to the delicate way he cut a sheet of metal to shape a heart, I kept struggling to understand why so few people knew about him and his work. 

Editor's note- See more of Andrés Carnalla's photography at his website: http://www.andrescarnalla.com/

SEEK Interviews: Spencer Platt

This is the first in an occasional series of interviews with SEEK instructors, our colleagues and friends, curators, photographers of all different kinds, our influences, and people who we think you might find interesting. Starting off this series is an interview with SEEK instructor Spencer Platt, who is Senior Staff Photographer for Getty Images in New York City. Spencer's long career has taken him around the world, covering international events ranging from wars, famines, and refugee crises to Presidential elections and stories of daily life. Follow Spencer's work on Instagram @plattys1 - and read more about him on his bio page here: http://www.seekworkshops.com/s-platt/ For now, please enjoy this interview (which was conducted by email).

SEEK: Can you tell us a bit about your experience in Albania in the mid-90's? How did you feel working there? What was something you encountered that was challenging, and how did you overcome it?

SP: I went to Albania in 1996 out of the frustration of working at a small regional newspaper. While it was the perfect setting to learn the craft of photojournalism, there was a monotony to my life that I wanted to alter, to throw it all into the sea. I went on the encouragement of my mother and the experience committed me forever to the life of a photojournalist, one of the last romantic careers. The country was in chaos, there were riots in the streets and the old communist order was being pulled apart. At the time I don’t think I was aware of the bigger historical picture or what it all meant for the future. I was simply happy to be roaming the country for 10 days with two film cameras and a rucksack. In one southern city they burned the police station down as I arrived on the night train; I somehow found a hotel and managed to get some food. I barricaded myself in the little room with an old dresser against the door, there was shooting in the street and I was terrified. It was one of the happiest nights of my life.

SEEK:In your bio you mentioned the theme of "a life worth living." What does that mean to you?

SP: I desperately wanted to be a “witness” to history, to be engaged in something larger than myself. What I learned from the experience is the idea of personal agency, how we have the power to shape our lives and careers in ways I never quite understood. Prior to my experiences in Albania I was of the impression that we primarily reacted to external events as humans, that we had only modest control over our destiny. While I was very young and naive on that trip, it taught me that action, decisiveness and original thought will often bring rewards…or at the very least experiences that give your life a durability that you can profit from. I haven’t always taken this lesson to heart in my photographic career, but it I strive to keep this idea in mind and am certain it has shaped my life. We live in an age that is increasingly passive, where too many of us are relegated to voyeurs on social media, television or other forms of entertainment. 

SEEK: How is being a flaneur, or, "a stroller of the street," important to you as a photographer?

SP: The beauty of street photography is that it demands engagement with your world. You can’t pursue this kind of work from an office or bedroom, from looking at a screen or listening to a podcast. One needs to be physically and spiritually in the present moment. One of the most beautiful aspects of street photography is that it’s an instrument you can play for the rest of your life, constantly tweaking it or re-examining it, but it ill always be there for you. I think once a person becomes comfortable with their personal vision it is a very therapeutic way to get through life. 

SEEK: Can you tell us a little about your friendship with Q and how your teaching together will be an interesting experience for students?

SP: I’ve forgotten where I first met Q, but it was certainly while covering a war some place. We worked very differently but somehow managed to be good traveling companions. In conflict situations it is always better to travel with someone else in case you run into trouble. You must also trust this persons advice and feel at ease with their decisions on how to proceed with the day; where the pictures will be made. This is very important and Q has always had a sense for how news events will unfold. Before you make an important picture there is often much thinking and debating, much walking and watching.

SEEK: Can you elaborate on how you think photojournalism and photography can be a way of "demanding more from life?"

SP: If there is anything I want my work to achieve it is the idea of the “rugged” life, both physically and mentally. A life that doesn’t divert from risk or discomfort, that seeks to constantly improve on our skills and to being a committed actor in our time. This sense of engagement involves literature, music, photography and a deep empathy. This sense of empathy, or compassion for others, is only fully realized through art. Street photography, when deeply pursued, it is the study of the theater of the street, of the small and large dramas that define who we are. 

Mexico and the Space to Think

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, January 4, 2017

The Flyers of Papantla visit San Miguel de Allende

The Flyers of Papantla visit San Miguel de Allende

Living in the highlands of central Mexico for the past year and a half while building SEEK Workshops with Elizabeth Watt and Andres Carnalla has helped me imagine possibilities, and to feel the moments of each day rather than rushing to get things done or simply struggling to find a parking space. What's essential to a creative life becomes clear- friends, conversations with enthusiastic colleagues, good food, exercise, and time. We do need more than those five things, but over and over I'm reminded that they provide the mental clarity upon which meaningful work can be built.

San Miguel is a place where you can catch your breath and consider that you can make something of value. It's a place where art, artists, and creativity are celebrated. People respond with enthusiasm upon hearing that I'm a photographer. Drivers stop to not obstruct my view as I take a picture, there's less aggression in the supermarket, and more friendly greetings from strangers as I step across the cobblestone streets of this 16th Century Spanish Colonial city and UNESCO World Heritage Site.  And when an exhibit opens, curious visitors gather around the pictures just to look, just to see another point of view.

Expats often speak of the "mañana" philosophy that you encounter in Mexico, the idea that there's no rush. You can finish tomorrow, or another day. Some hate it, some laugh along with it in resignation, and others, myself included, embrace it. After years of daily newspaper deadlines, it feels luxurious to slow down to think, to let an idea germinate, to feel a place, to enjoy your friends, to take more time to finish a project so it's done the way you want it. But it's not a luxury- it's essential to give yourself that time. At SEEK we often talk about trusting the process- that delving into your work to savor the experience of working and creating rather than looking to the end result. In Mexico, the culture supports the process.

People visit San Miguel de Allende for many reasons - the architecture, the climate, the food, the cost of living. For us at SEEK, it's the place where we are building on our ideas of doing things differently. Of taking time, of finding flow within a project as we frame images with our cameras, of taking a hike in the countryside with or without a camera, of believing that good work comes out of simple concepts given room to breathe. That space inside our heads can be so cluttered with details and deadlines. Slow down, recognize that manaña will be here soon enough, and give yourself time to create or reflect. If your environment doesn't provide enough of that for you, join us sometime in San Miguel.